The Palestine Paradox: Why Do Leftists Love a Palestinian Cause That Rejects Their Values?

Islamist language now permeates a once proudly secular Palestinian national identity, and Palestinian governance is decidedly illiberal. So why don't their Western leftist allies speak out?

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Demonstrators protest outside the Israeli Embassy in west London during the 2014 Gaza - Israel war. July 26, 2014
Demonstrators protest outside the Israeli Embassy in west London during the 2014 Gaza - Israel war. July 26, 2014Credit: REUTERS
Yigal Walt
Tamer Nashef

Leftists in the West, and particularly its most hard-nosed adherents, have largely endorsed and embraced the Palestinian cause. In Israel, too, significant forces within the leftist camp hold a deeply sympathetic view of the Palestinians and their ongoing struggle. Leftwing activists also play a key role in the BDS movement, whose calls to boycott Israel just prompted the cancellation of an Israel-Argentina soccer match.

Paradoxically, leftist support has persisted even though the Palestinian national movement has increasingly shunned the leftwing ideals that were once more firmly entrenched within it.

Hence, by closely aligning themselves with the Palestinians, many leftists are now espousing views that are inherently at odds with the liberal and enlightened worldview they presumably hope to champion.

A protestor holds a placard reading "On Gaza: your silence kills" during a demonstration, in Paris. May 15, 2018Credit: Thibault Camus/AP

Up until the 1980s, the Palestinian national movement had been overwhelmingly secular, with Western-style intellectuals and leftist groups playing a preeminent role. But Palestinian national identity has undergone a seismic transformation in recent decades, owing to the ascendancy of Islamist movements, namely Hamas and Islamic Jihad

Once, political discourse was premised on the idea that the conflict with Israel, and the Zionist movement as a whole, revolved around territory. Thus, the ultimate objective of the struggle was the replacement of the "Zionist regime" by a democratic, secular state - albeit on Israel's rubble - where Jews, Christians and Muslims could live in peace and coexistence. 

Moreover, this discourse was notably devoid of religious terms ("Islam" and its derivatives were conspicuously absent from the PLO's 1964 charter). Rare calls for adopting Islamic values as a source of inspiration were met with indifference and suspicion, if not outright hostility, especially from the 1950s through the late 1970s.

A 1971 book titled "Palestine: The Road to Peace," which sets forth the Palestinian narrative, is a case in point. Written by prominent Palestinian diplomat Henry Cattan, the book firmly grounds pro-Palestinian arguments in reason and historical fact, without invoking religion to buttress the Palestinian claim for the land. 

It is also noteworthy that Christian figures such as George Habash, Wadi Haddad, Nayef Hawatmeh and Muneer Shafiq were at the forefront of Palestinian politics, indicating that the Palestinian struggle was by no means exclusively Islamic and welcomed proponents from across the religious spectrum.

Palestinian girls supporting Hamas speak with each as they take part in a rally marking the 30th anniversary of Hamas' founding, in Gaza City December 14, 2017. Credit: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

But in the wake of the humiliating Arab defeat in the 1967 war, and its concomitant sense of disillusionment with secular ideologies such as socialism, the Arab world experienced an Islamic Resurgence or Awakening (al-sahwa al-islamiyya). This turn prompted urgent calls to repudiate Western doctrines and reassert the Arab nation’s Islamic identity.

Never impervious to the impact of events in the Arab world, the Palestinians were also swept by this historic process. Subsequently, once dominant movements such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) experienced a painful decline as their influence steadily waned.

Gradually, religious slogans came to the fore, supplanting the largely secular messaging of Palestinian intellectuals and political movements of yesteryear. While liberal West Bank enclaves endure, and PLO leaders continue to publicly promote a secular rather than Islamic state, religious terminology has by now permeated the discourse, including the rhetoric of ostensibly secular officials.

Meanwhile, secular intellectuals (such as Edward Said, Hisham Sharabi, Mahmud Darwish and Sari Nuseibah) whose message once resonated with the masses, have lost their stature and their ideas now barely create a stir. Indeed, the standing of Palestinian intelligentsia has suffered such a major diminution that it would be difficult to name any truly influential intellectuals from the West Bank, Gaza, or East Jerusalem.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh releases a dove during a rally commemorating the 27th anniversary of the Islamist movement’s creation, in Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp, December 12, 2014.Credit: AFP

Hence, the vision of a democratic and secular Palestine is now fervently challenged by calls to expel all Jews and create a Sharia-based or otherwise conservative entity. Surely not all Palestinians share this view, and Hamas has in recent years toned down its staunch Islamist rhetoric, but such sentiments enjoy a wide appeal among the increasingly conservative and religious Palestinian populace.

Finally, the Palestinian Authority established in the 1990s has hardly served as a model for progressive government guided by liberal ideals. Elections have not been held for more than a decade, with Mahmoud Abbas presiding over a corrupt West Bank regime known for persecuting dissidents and journalists. In Gaza, residents have been struggling under an oppressive rule since Hamas took over the Strip in a 2007 military coup.

Yet despite all, broad leftist support for the Palestinian movement persists, and has even swelled in some circles. This is manifested, among other things, through muted criticism of Palestinian actions and rhetoric, continued support for Abbas, and a tendency to blame Israel when violence erupts, while downplaying Palestinian culpability.

Notably, leftists have routinely praised the domestic policies of regimes aligned with left-wing ideas, such as Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, while habitually condemning internal Israeli affairs and right-wing schemes. Yet many on the left seem to conveniently ignore the domestic Palestinian scene.

Members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement and masked militants attend the funeral of comrades killed in an Israeli operation to blow up a tunnel stretching from the Gaza Strip into Israel duriCredit: THOMAS COEX/AFP

We do not argue that leftists should be downright hostile to the Palestinians or embrace Israel’s military rule in the West Bank. But a posture that is commensurate with left-wing tenets could object to the occupation without necessarily and automatically vouching for the Palestinian side, certainly in its current state.

A revised leftist stance would not only be more consistent ideologically, but is likely to pay some real dividends. Declining international support for the Palestinians could serve to mitigate their intransigence and revitalize negotiations, and in Israel the left would be better positioned to challenge dominant right-wing dogmas with fresh ideas premised on truly leftist principles.

Given the generally unhelpful international debate on the issue, and the increasingly uninspiring political discourse in Israel, a quintessentially leftist camp that is both moderate and iconoclastic would infuse a much-needed breath of fresh air into this important discussion. Ultimately, by reassessing their course, leftists in Israel and elsewhere could help prevent the conflict from descending down a grim, perilous and mostly hopeless path.

Yigal Walt is a political researcher and former news editor 

Tamer Nashef is a researcher specializing in the history of religion

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